Stellaris: Nemesis Review

3.0 already? Stellaris has only been out for a few years, but we’ve just hit another large milestone, as the official third full version of the game released with a new DLC, as is Paradox’s wont. Nemesis brings some new and, in my opinion, greatly needed, changes to the late game, but there aren’t unfortunately many changes to the early game.

The free 3.0 update that came alongside Nemesis added, among other features, a new espionage system, somewhat similar to the system in Hearts of Iron 4. Essentially, an empire will know vague details about other empires in terms of scientific advancement, military strength, etc., based on the “Intel” level the empire has on them. Various things can give you more intel on other empires, but the main way to do so is to assign an envoy to an empire. That’s all in the free update.

Spooky business.

What Nemesis adds is the ability to use the envoy as a spy in the target empire. Based on the amount of time they’re placed in the other empire, the spy can embark on several missions against the other empire, varying from relatively harmless intelligence gathering to active sabotage of buildings and infrastructure. These missions all have difficulty levels, which is based on the encryption level of each empire involved, and you can use “assets” gained through missions or over time to help increase a mission’s success chance… there’s a fair amount of depth to this minigame.

Unfortunately though, as interesting as it is, it’s somewhat lackluster and a hassle to engage in. Most empires only have a few envoys, and the utility of using an envoy for espionage rather than to increase diplomatic weight or to bolster a Federation seems, to me, to be lesser. I want to note that I tend to play in larger, more crowded games, with many empires, so the effect of a single spy on one of 15-20 other empires isn’t as impactful as it might be for a player in smaller galaxies. It’s a shame because I like the system, but the reward for putting time and resources into it doesn’t measure up to what you’re missing out on. 

Space Geckos are always the equivalent to Civ’s Gandhi. Hate these dudes.

The other main features of Nemesis, however, are quite good. The “Become the crisis” or the Galactic Custodian role both deal with the end-game of Stellaris, and heavily change what that can look like through playthroughs. First: the “Become the Crisis” option. This option allows empires to take the place of the normal end-game crisis themselves. By taking one of the ascendancy perks through the Unity tree (which needs some TLC but that’s a discussion for another time), you can start down your own path to megalomaniacal interstellar supervillainy. Fun! The long and short of it is that you get “Menace” points for doing various dickish, bastardly, and otherwise evil acts, and with these points, you unlock various benefits over time, somewhat like the Federation tree, but for evil guys. Which you will be, if you follow this tree.

Being the crisis culminates in the player getting ships that can destroy stars, which they use to fuel a certain kind of doomsday weapon. If they charge it up, they win. This drives an interesting form of end-game conflict, where players would normally fight intergalactic hordes of eyeballs, evil robots, or ascendant empires, other empires (or you!) will now be the end-game Big Bad. It’s reminiscent of the very good “realm divide” feature from Total War: Shogun 2, where everyone hates you when you get strong enough. And you will indeed be strong if you follow this path successfully, as the empires that build up Menace get various bonuses that let them perform space genocide/ imperialism more efficiently. It’s a fitting climax to a game, and makes me wish other Paradox games had this kind of climax to campaigns. As a brief aside: I haven’t been able to play many full games of Stellaris since the release of the DLC, so I can’t comment on how likely the non-player empires are to take this path, but I had heard they might not be super likely to at this time, so keep that in mind.

Image shamelessly stolen from Stellaris Dev Diary 199 because I hate playing the bad guy.

The other big option is that of Galactic Custodian, sort of the “good guy” counterpart to becoming the crisis. Essentially, much like how the Galactic Community can elect Council Members, so too can the Galactic Community can nominate a Council Member to be Galactic Custodian. What this does is turn that empire into a super Council Member, or, as my nerdy historian brain likes to think of it, into a Cincinnatus. A temporary dictator, meant to directly counter crises (and indeed, AI are more likely to vote for someone to fill this spot during a crisis), and is given extra privileges to be able to do so. At first, this is limited to the ability to manipulate the voting period of the Galactic Community and the ability to build a Galactic Defense Force, which is like a Federation fleet but draws from the entire Community, rather than a single Federation. However, the Custodian can pass measures to increase their power and term limit, eventually making their seat indefinite. 

But why stop there? The Custodian can then proclaim a Galactic Imperium, with themselves as the head. This measure, if passed, grants many privileges to the now Emperor, who will become in many ways, the top dog of the Galaxy. All empires in the Galactic Community are still nominally independent, but the Emperor can propose strict laws on what relations member empires can have with each other. Of course, unhappy member empires can, with the new espionage tool, attempt to undermine imperial authority and spark a civil war over the Imperium, with the Galactic Community returning to the spotlight should the rebels succeed.
This kind of flavor is huge in spicing up the mid-late game of Stellaris matches, giving players more to either strive for, or be wary of. It promotes large, climactic, end-game conflicts that can tell a great story, and that is the driving factor of what makes grand strategy games so interesting: the stories told by the rise and fall of empires. With Nemesis, there are far more options than before for empires to both rise and fall. If you like freedom in your Stellaris games, get Nemesis.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

-Jack Trumbull